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THE JOURNAL 

OF 

NEGRO HISTORY 



Vol. VI— July, 1921— No. 3 



THE MATERIAL CULTURE OF ANCIENT NIGERIA. 

The opinion of the Western World toward Africa and 
Africans is in the process of a very slow, yet very tremen- 
dous, change. The distant yet ultimate development of this 
process will bring about a most important revolution in the 
world of modem thought. It will be marked by a complete 
reversal of the prevailing present-day evaluation of the his- 
tory of a continent and of the accomplishments and possi- 
bilities of a great people. 

To the lay mind of the modern world, Africa is a gigan- 
tic jungle of barbarians, bamboo and baboons, where Liv- 
ingstone traveled, Rhodes prospected, and Roosevelt 
hunted. Furthermore, it is only within the last twenty- 
five years or more that even that learned group whose pro- 
fession is the exposition and interpretation of human his- 
tory has begun to modify its opinions in this connection. 

An insight into the spirit of learned opinion regarding 
Africa and the Africans only a comparatively short time 
ago may be gained from the following article, which ap- 
peared in a Berlin journal in 1891.^ The article, in part, 
runs: 

" With regard to its Negro population, Africa in contemporary 
opinion offers no historical enigma which calls for a solution, be- 
1 Quoted by Leo Frobenius, Voice of Africa, Vol. 1, p. 1. 

261 



262 JouBNAL OF Negeo Histoby 

cause from all the information supplied by our explorers and ethnol- 
ogists, the history of civilization proper in the continent begins, as 
far as concerns its inhabitants, only with the Mohammedan invasion. 

" Before the introduction of a genuine faith and a higher 
standard of culture by the Arabs, the nations had neither political 
organization nor, strictly speaking, any religion, nor any industrial 
development. None but the most primitive instincts determine the 
lives and conduct of the Negroes who lack every kind of ethical 
inspiration. Every judicial observer and critic of alleged African 
culture must once for all make up his mind to renounce the charm 
of poetry and wizardry of fairy lore, all those things which in other 
parts of the world remind us of a past fertile in legend and song; 
that is to say, must bid farewell to the attractions offered by the 
Beyond of History, by the hope of eventually realizing the tangible 
impalpable realm conjured up in the distance which time has veiled 
within its mists, and by the expectation of ultimately wresting 
some relics of antiquity every now and again from the lap of the 
earth. 

" If the soil of Africa is turned up today by the colonist's 
plough share, no ancient weapon will lie in the furrow ; if the virgin 
soil be cut by a canal, its excavation will reveal no ancient tomb; 
and if the ax effects a clearing in the primeval forest, it will no- 
where ring upon the foundations of an old world palace. Africa 
is poorer in record history than can be imagined. * Black Africa ' 
is a continent which has no mystery, nor history ! ' ' 

But now this view of Black Africa and its peoples so 
widespread and well established a generation ago is being 
slowly dissipated and a new and revolutionary view of the 
mysterious contents is building itself in its stead. The 
facts and forces bringing about this great change fall into 
three main classes ; they are of an historical, archaeological 
and ethnological character. 

The real beginning of this change of opinion may be said 
to date from the capture of the old African city of Benin 
by the British military forces in the year 1897. The eco- 
nomic and political aspects of the incident do not concern 
us here, but from an anthropological point of view it proved 
to be one of the most important incidents of the nineteenth 



The Matebiai, Cultube of Ancient Nigeria 263 

century. For as Ling Roth,^ tlie noted traveler and ethnol- 
ogist, has said, " the taking of Benin City opened up to us 
the knowledge of the existence of hitherto unknown African 
craft, the productions of which will hold their own among 
some of the best specimens of antiquity of modem times." 

Many of these objects of art were carried away from 
Benin by the members of the invading expedition to Europe, 
where they created a profound impression and astounding 
surprise in scientific circles throughout the continent. C. 
H. Eead, in a paper before the Anthropological Institute of 
Great Britain and Ireland, on the " Art of Benin City," 
the year following their discovery, says: " It need scarcely 
be said that at the first sight of these remarkable works of 
art we were at once astounded at such an unexpected find."' 

Just about this time, and continuing down to the present 
day, a number of Oriental scholars began to bring out mod- 
em language translations of the works of numerous Arab 
writers bearing upon African history— chief among them 
being the works of El Bekri, Ibn Batuta and Ibn Khaldoun. 
The most important, however, at least from one angle, was 
a translation of the Tarikh es Sudan, or The History of the 
Sudan, which is not the work of an Arab at all, but the 
joint work of several Sudanese blacks. In its original form 
it was written both in Arabic and in the Songhay languages. 
The book was translated into French by M. Hondas, the 
eminent French professor of the Oriental School of Lan- 
guages of Paris. 

"The book," says Lugard,* " is a wonderful document, the 
narrative of which deals mainly with the modern history of the 
Songhay Empire, relating the rise of this black civilization there 
in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and its decadence up to the 
middle of the seventeenth century. . . . But it is not merely an 
authentic narrative. It is for the unconscious light which it sheds 
upon the life, manners, politics and literature of the country that 
it is valuable. Above all, it possesses the crowning quality dis- 

2 H. Ling Both, Great Benin, p. 217. 

s Jour. Anthrop. Inst., February, 1898, p. 371. 

* F. L. Lugard, A Tropical Dependency, p. 154. 



264 Journal of Negeo History 

played usually in creative poetry alone, of presenting a vivid mind 
picture of the character of the men with whom it deals. It has 
been called the ' Epic of the Sudan. ' It lacks the charm of form, 
but in all else the description is well merited. Its pages are a 
treasure house of information for the careful student, and the 
volume may be read many times without extracting from it more 
than a small part of all that it contains." 

Barth, who obtained some fragments of an Arabic copy 
when he was on his way to Timbuctoo, goes so far as to say 
that the book forms " one of the most important additions 
that the present age has made to the history of mankind.'" 
Like the unknown culture which the Benin bronzes revealed, 
the translation of these documents brought to the attention 
of the learned and academic circles of the Western World, 
in a more available form, surprising accounts of the some- 
time existence of powerful and age-old kingdoms and em- 
pires in the heart of Black Africa, which hitherto had 
scarcely been suspected. 

Following close upon this was the cursory but illuminat- 
ing report of Une mission archeologique au Sudan fran- 
cais, headed by the soldier-ethnologist. Lieutenant Louis 
Desplaynes. The report, Le Plateau Central Nigirien, 
Paris, 1907, brought to Europe much valuable information 
bearing upon the past cultures of the practically unknown 
Nigerian plateau regions. 

Passing over a few very important ethnological studies 
bearing for the most part upon present-day cultures, we 
come last of all to what is in the truest sense of the word 
the wonderful and astounding revelations regarding the 
pre-historic culture of an ancient Negro race on the West 
Coast of Africa. 'These revelations were brought to light 
as the result of the publications by Leo Frobenius of his 
Der Afrika Sprach in Berlin in 1913.' This was a popular 
account of the experiences and findings of the German Inner 
African Exploration Expedition during its travels in the 
Nigerian area for the years 1910-1912. As important as 

5 Lugard, A Tropical Dependency, p. 154. 

« Translated into English by Rudolf Blind. Published by Hutchinson and 
Company, London, 1913. 



The Mateeial Culture of Ancient Nigeeia 265 

are the ethnological and archaeological finds of this expedi- 
tion, which will be considered further on, one of its most 
significant features was its bold advocacy and support of 
an idea which has been hesitantly advanced in a few circles 
ever since the study of the Benin bronzes and the Nubian 
monuments, namely, the existence of a genuinely superior 
type of culture in Central Africa in pre-classical and pre- 
Christian times. 

Such, then, by way of introduction is the nature of the 
sources from which comes the influence which is slowly 
and haltingly, yet surely, bringing about the change in cur- 
rent opinion regarding " Black Africa " as is evidenced by 
the timely but hitherto unsuccessful effort of Harvard Uni- 
versity to treat the records of the African peoples scien- 
tifically in keeping with the standard set in the first volume 
of the Varia Africana. This paper, however, as may be 
inferred from its title, does not undertake to survey the 
facts covering the whole field, but restricts itself to ma- 
terials of a more or less archaeological character, that is, 
to the architecture, tombs and the arts and crafts of a 
small section of this ancient land. 

There are two reasons for approaching this whole sub- 
ject in this way. First, the materials and facts herewith 
considered are in the main of a tangible and undisputed 
character ; and, secondly, it is the study of architecture and 
the arts and crafts of this particular locality that has been 
the premier force in changing the old opinion of the world 
towards Africa. Let us then turn now for a somewhat de- 
tailed study of these materials. 

As has been said in the introduction, it was the revela- 
tion incident to the taking of Benin by the British that 
marks the real beginning of a serious and scientific interest 
in the past cultures of Central Africa. The incident started 
a movement of both a forward and a backward reach. On 
the one hand, it led to subsequent searchings which ulti- 
mately resulted in the finding of additional evidences of 
culture in that territory, as well as to a reconsideration of 
the value of the reports of the travelers and adventurers 



266 JoxjENAi. OF Negbo History 

on the West Coast from the fifteenth century on.^ The 
combined result has been the bringing to light of objects 
and evidences of achievement which place the ancient and 
medieval African on a plane with, and in many cases above, 
his contemporaries in Europe and America. 

The reports of earlier adventurers and travelers in the 
Benin territory previous to the British conquest gave us 
pictures of towns and buildings which, all things consid- 
ered, are of no mean order, and which reflect the existence 
of a social and cultural development of a very long stand- 
ing. The earliest recorded description of Benin City, ac- 
cording to Ling Eoth,® is that of an old Dutch chronicler 
who wrote as ** D. R." and whose works first appeared in 
Germany in 1604. His description is as follows : 

" At first the town seems very large; when one enters it one 
comes at once into a broad street which appears to be seven or eight 
times broader than the Warme street in Amsterdam ; this extends 
straight out, and when one has walked a quarter of an hour along 
it, he still does not see the end of the street. ... At the gate at 
which one enters there is a very high bulwark, very thick and 
strongly made, with a very deep, broad ditch, but it was dry and 
full of high trees. This ditch extends a good way, but we do not 
know whether it extends around the town or not. That gate is a 
well-made gate, made of wood, to be shut according to their methods, 
and watch is always kept there. Outside this gate there is a large 
suburb. . . . One sees a great many lanes and streets on both sides, 
which also extend far and straight, but one can not see the end of 
them on account of their great extent. 

" The houses in this town stand in good order, one close to the 
other, like houses in Holland. Houses in which well-to-do people, 
such as gentlemen, dwell, have two or three steps to go up, and in 
front have an ante-court where one may sit, which court or gallery 
is cleaned every morning by their servants, and straw mats spread 
for sitting on. Their rooms or apartments with (the court) are 
four square, having a roof all round, which, however, does not join 

t Old Dutch and Portuguese manuscripts have been collected and studied 
by Ling Both and the findings appear in his Great Benin quoted in this 
paper. 

8 Ling Both, Great Benin, p. 157. 



The Mateeial Culture op Ancient Nigeeia 267 

in the middle, but is left open, so that the wind, rain and daylight 
may enter. In these houses they live and eat, but they have spe- 
cially built little houses for cooking, as well as other huts and 
rooms. . . . The king's court is very large, being many square 
places within, surrounded by courts wherein watch is always kept. 
This king's court is so large that the end is not to be seen, and 
when one thinks he has come to the end, one sees through a gateway 
other places or courts, and one sees many, many stables. ' ' 

Another description of Benin which seems to corrobo- 
rate this former description, and vphich was itself substanti- 
ated by later and more recent reports, appeared in a book* 
published by one Dapper, a Dutchman, in Amsterdam in 
1668. It seems that Dapper himself was never at Benin, 
but received most of his information about the country from 
the writings of a Sam Blomert, who. Dapper says, lived for 
many years in Africa." As Ling Both points out, subse- 
quent reports and the recent finds seem to bear out the truth 
of his account. 

According to Dapper, 

" the town comprising the queen's court is about five or six 
[Dutch] miles in circumference, or, leaving out the court, three 
miles inside the gates. It is protected at one side by a wall ten feet 
high, made of double stockades of big trees tied to each other by 
cross beams, fastened crosswise and stuffed up with red clay solidly 
put together. . . . The town possesses several gates, eight or nine 
feet in height, and five feet in width, with doors made of a single 
piece of timber hanging, or turning on a peg like the peasants' 
fences here in this country. [Holland.] 

" The king's court is square and stands at the right-hand side 
as one enters the town by the gate of Gotton, and is certainly as 
large as the town of Harlem, and entirely surrounded by a special 
wall like that which encircles the town. It is divided into many 
magnificent palaces, houses and apartments for courtiers and com- 
prises beautiful long and square galleries about as large as the 
Exchange at Amsterdam, but one larger than another, resting on 
wooden pillars from top to bottom, covered with cast copper on 

8 Dr. Olfert Dapper, "Nauwkeurige. Beschrijvenge der Afrikansehe 
Geweslen." (As listed and quoted by Ling Both, in Great Benin.) 
10 Ling Both, Great Benin, p. 2. 



268 JoTTENAIi OF NeGBO HiSTORY 

which are engraved the pictures of their war exploits and battles, 
and are kept very clean. Most palaces and houses are covered with 
palm leaves instead of square pieces of wood [shingles] , and every 
roof is decorated with a small turret, ending in a small point on 
which birds are standing, these birds being cast in copper, and 
having outspread wings cleverly made after living models. 

" The town has thirty very straight and broad streets, each of 
them about one hundred and twenty feet wide or about as wide as 
the Heeren or Keezersgracht [canals] at Amsterdam from one row 
of houses to the other, from which branch out many side streets, 
also broad, but less so than the main streets. 

" The houses are built alongside the street in good order, the 
one close to the other as here in this country [Holland], adorned 
with gables and steps and roofs made of palm or banana leaves, or 
leaves from other trees ; they are not higher than a ' stadie, ' but 
usually broad with long galleries inside, especially so in the case of 
the houses of the nobility, and divided into many rooms, which are 
separated by walls made of red clay, very well erected, and they 
can make and keep them as shiny and smooth by washing and rub- 
bing as any wall in Holland can be made with chalk, and they are 
like mirrors. The upper storys are made of the same sort of clay ; 
moreover, every house is provided with a well for a supply of fresh 
water. ' ' 

Before going any further with this description, it may 
be well to state that the description of the nature and char- 
acter of the finish of the walls given here is substantiated 
by accounts of travelers in these parts as late as the end of 
the nineteenth century. Captain Boisragon, one of the two 
survivors of the ill-fated white expedition to Benin in 1897, 
in comparing the houses of Benin with those of another 
nearby city, says that " the chief of Gwatto's house was 
very much superior ; the walls, which were very thick, being 
polished till they were nearly as smooth and shiny as 
glass."" Mr. Cyrl Punch, who traveled in Yorubaland in 
the eighties of the nineteenth century, gives us a hint of the 
widespread practice of this sort of wall polishing even so 
late as forty-five years ago, and furnishes us with a very 
interesting account of how the polished effect was produced. 

11 ITie Benin Massacre, p. 81. 



The Mateeiax. Cultube of Ancient Nigebia 269 

" For giving a high polish to the clay walls in Yorubaland," 
says Punch, " the leaves of the Moringa pterygosperinia 
are naashed np and rubbed over the clay." Of a certain 
house in the town Brohemi he continues to say that " the 
walls were better polished than any in Benin. They were 
like marble. ' "^ 

In comparing the earlier descriptions of Benin and other 
African cities in this general area with the descriptions of 
later writers, an important fact stands out, namely, that 
these cities had already reached their highest point of de- 
velopment before the coming of the white man; for in a 
description of Benin by another Dutchman, Nyendall, which 
appeared in 1704, we read the following: " Formerly the 
buildings in this village were very thick and very close to- 
gether, and in a manner it was over-populated, which is yet 
visible from the ruins of the half remaining houses ; but at 
present the houses stand like poor men's com, widely apart 
from each other." His description otherwise is very simi- 
lar to those previously given, yet his account does bring out 
an additional point which is worthy of note, namely, the 
reason for the use of clay in building. " The houses are 
large and handsome," he writes, "with clay walls; for 
there is not a stone in the whole country as large as a man's 
fist."" In the same connection, Legraing, who visited 
Benin in 1787, also hints at the reason for the extensive use 
of clay and wood as the principal structural materials. 
Around Benin, according to this observer, " the vestiges of 
an old earthen wall are still to be seen ; the wall could hardly 
have been built of any other material, as we did not see a 
single stone in the whole journey up."" 

The recent reports by Leo Frobenius on his findings 
further up into the interior, aside from giving us a picture 
of present-day conditions of cities which he believes to date 
back to pre-classical and pre-Christian times, also show 
the absence or scarcity of durable producing materials. 

12 Quoted by Both in Great Benin, p. 161. 
i3 76id., p. 162. 
i*nid., p. 163. 



270 JOUBNAL OF NeGEO HiSTOBY 

But, most important of all, the report indicates the gran- 
deur of African cities in ancient times. In discussing the 
buildings in the present-day city of Ilife, which he believes 
was the capital or center of an ancient African theocracy, 
he says: ** There can be no doubt that the entire plan and 
style of architecture gives the city of Ilife a pleasantly dig- 
nified character. If, however, I am to summarize all the 
life and activities of this city of palms and divinities, I 
cannot, indeed, speak of anything great and sublime, be- 
cause that lies buried too deep beneath the soil and debris 
of centuries, yet I can say that it has a dreamy respecta- 
bility." 

But speaking specifically upon the building which now 
serves as the palace of the great religious headman of 
Yorubaland, he says: " The edifice rests upon foundations 
not of sun dried, but of fine burnt brick." Taken as a 
whole, the present-day structure conveys " the impression 
of grandeur in decay." " Such," he says, " is a sketch of 
the city whose effect is heightened by the noble ruins of the 
palace of this Holiness and the consciousness of its tradi- 
tional past."" 

We may now turn for a brief consideration of those 
strange and most interesting structures of the Sudan, the 
tombs of their ancient dead. All through the Sudan, and 
especially in Nigeria, are to be found great conical dome- 
shaped structures of baked clay ranging in size from six- 
teen feet in height and sixty-six feet in basal diameter to 
seventy feet in height and two hundred and twenty feet in 
basal diameter.^" These structures were first mentioned by 
Lieutenant Louis Desplaynes in his report of TJne Mission 
archeologique au Sudan francais,^" but the first close study 
of these tombs was made by Frobenius in 1911. Frobenius 
tells us that these tombs are of three main types : first, a 
small size ; second, an intermediate size ; and third, a large 
size. This last type, he tells us, was an extraordinary 
large construction, averaging about seventy feet in height 

15 Leo Frobenius, Voice of Africa, Vol. 1, pp. 21-25. 
i» Le Plateau Central Nigerien, Paris, 1907. 



The Mateeial Cultube of Ancient Nigebia 271 

and six hundred and fifty to seven hundred feet in basal cir- 
cumference. The external structure is connected with an 
underground structure composed of a number of subter- 
ranean chambers and compartments, extending in every di- 
rection of the compass, sufficient to accommodate the re- 
mains of a great number of notables and royal personages. 

Frobenius states, regarding one of these subterranean 
chambers which he explored, that it contained a dome which 
was paneled and strengthened with wood from the borassus 
palm and the whole plastered with a sort of prepared clay.^^ 
Frobenius also believes that the external parts of the 
tombs, that is, the mound proper— was made layer by layer. 
Each layer of clay was first thoroughly worked, moulded, 
and baked. This process was repeated time and time again, 
until the mound was completed. 

The veteran Egyptologist, Flinders Petrie, in the great 
mass of evidence adduced by him to show the African origin 
of the spirit and substratum of early dynastic Egyptian 
culture, points out that there is a very close connection be- 
tween the subterranean structures of these tombs and many 
of those of the Egyptian pyramids, the inference being that 
the idea of the pyramids very probably had its origin in 
Central Africa. 

As interesting and important as are these structures in 
this connection, they, like those previously mentioned and 
those yet to be described, are of interest in another direc- 
tion ; they bespeak the sometime existence here of a mighty 
people with a glorious past, now lyin^ sleeping within the 
bosom of the earth, the silent witnesses of a world that has 
perished. 

Beginning about three hundred years ago, and going 
back to an unknown period, it is evident from the above 
comments and extracts that the cultural life of the Negro 
on the West Coast of Africa, especially from the point of 
view of his architectural and tomb-building proclivities, 
was of a much higher type than anything he has produced 

17 rrobenius, Voice of Africa, Vol. 1, p. 25. 



272 JouENAL OF Negbo Histoey 

since his contact with the European during the last four 
hundred years. The quality and quantity of work accom- 
plished by these ancient black builders is especially notable 
when it is remembered that the type of material which they 
were forced to use, and the climatic conditions surrounding 
them, were of a most discouraging sort. The manner in 
which these very serious difficulties were overcome is itself 
a durable testimony of the ingenuity and resourcefulness of 
the African builder and craftsman of earlier days. One 
can hardly avoid the speculation of what might have been 
the nature of their accomplishments, had they been provided 
with a more suitable and durable building material. 

The more we study the cultural products of these people, 
the more pregnant such a speculation becomes ; for in those 
fields of endeavor where they were less handicapped, or 
better, perhaps, where they were in a better position to 
overcome the destroying influence of the climate and the 
lack of suitable structural materials, we find the African 
artisan and the craftsman producing a wealth of objects of 
art of a very superior type. Some of these objects are 
notable not only in that they are of a superior type judged 
according to the standards of a so-called primitive art, but 
they compare, so far as technique and artistic qualities are 
concerned, very favorably with much of the best of ancient 
civilized art. The last generation has brought to light evi- 
dence which shows that the Negroes of the West Coast of 
Africa were producing hundreds and even perhaps thou- 
sands of years ago objects of art which, from the point of 
view of technique and artistic perfection, equal some of the 
best works of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and compares 
favorably with the best masterpieces of the Solons of the 
Italian Rennaissance. 

As was above stated, it has been the study of the tech- 
nique, originality and artistic qualities as expressed in 
these recently found and comparatively little known Afri- 
can objects that has been the premier force in producing 
the change of opinion regarding the capabilities of African 



The Matbeial Cultuke of Ancient Nigeria 273 

folk and the cultural history of the great continent. In this 
connection, however, it is perhaps well again to remind one 
of the fact that this change of opinion is not yet public in 
its scope, but is rather restricted to academic and especially 
to anthropological circles. 

For the sake of clearness, the whole collection of African 
arts and crafts may be classified under three main heads, 
namely, carved works, glass and porcelain objects, including 
terra cottas, and metal castings. It will, of course, be im- 
possible to treat exhaustively of the objects in any one of 
these fields. A considerable amount of selection will, there- 
fore, be necessary ; and in the interest of fairness it may be 
stated at the outset that the treatment and descriptions for 
the most part will be of the finest and best specimens so far 
obtained. In doing this, of course, we follow the general 
and most usual method of those engaged in making cultural 
studies. There is, however, an additional and very special 
reason for such a procedure in this case. It is the opinion 
of Dalton, Bead, Ling Both and Frobenius— perhaps the 
leading authorities on the whole subject— that the best ob- 
jects are likewise the oldest objects ; and since this purports 
to be a study of the ancient and medieval cultures, our pur- 
pose in following the above method of selection is doubly 
clear. 

Among the large nimaber of carved works discovered at 
Benin by the British Punitive Expedition are a large num- 
ber of huge and splendidly carved elephant tusks. These 
objects have been carefully studied by Ling Roth, and the 
following is an abbreviation of his description of them:^' 

" The tusks vary in length up to six feet and over, and are in 
themselves magnificent specimens of ivory, speaking eloquently of 
the peaceful life which the elephants must once have lived, in order 
to produce such tusks. The ornamentation to which the large tusks 
have been subjected while preserving their form is in two grades: 
the one is severely plain, and the other extremely ornate and deco- 
rative in effect. The former consists of a series of three to five 
incised bands of a plait pattern, a design very common in West 

IS Ling Eoth, Great Benin, p. 193. 



274 JouBNAii OF Negbo Histoby 

Africa, placed at intervals, the bands diminishing in width as they 
approach the tip of the tusk. The embellishment is consequently 
plain, but elegant, and does not call for further remark. 

" The other grade consists in covering the whole tusk with a 
succession of boldly carved grotesque figures — human, animal, and 
symbolic — giving the tusk a rich embroidered-like look, the thick 
ends being finished off with a suitable diamond pattern belt and 
the tip finished with an equally appropriate series of carvings in 
the shape of a mascle studded foolscap, or a capsule supported by 
elongated cowries. The back appears to be cut to a uniform depth, 
and in spite of the multiplicity of figures there is neither over- 
crowding nor overloading." 

There is another piece of carved ivory which appears to 
Ling Eoth to be a piece of symbolic sculpture and which 
was probably used as a scepter. Eoth says of this : 

" The execution of the detail is rough — more rugged perhaps 
than the carved tusks — nevertheless there is considerable originality 
of design, and it is especially remarkable as showing an earlier 
stage of the application of hammered metal to carved work."^* 

Among the carved works in ivory are many splendidly 
carved armlets. Ling Roth gives a description of one 
which is particularly interesting as showing the ingenuity 
of the Negro artisan. 

' ' While at first sight it appears to depict only one carved arm- 
let, it is really two armlets, one being carved inside the other out 
of the same piece of ivory with only the space of a knife-blade 
thickness between them. When moved, the two armlets rattle 
against each other. The ornamentation consists of four figures : a 
king or chief belonging to the outer armlet, and four sets of two 
hands placed between the human figures belonging to the inner 
armlet. The whole shows skill and ingenuity on the part of the 
artist who planned this difficult piece of work, so remarkable from 
a technical point of view. But although the beauty of design is 
not its chief attraction, it is nevertheless a piece of work which can 
not fail to be admired from the artistic standpoint also. ' ' 

Another object of interest described by Ling Eoth is a 
highly ornate fragment on an article which originally had 

i» Ling Koth, Great Benin, p. 196. 



The Material Ctiltuee of Ancient Nigebia 275 

the shape of a brass sistrum, consisting of two bell forms, 
a large and a small one, grafted onto one handle. Its deli- 
cate treatment is described as differing somewhat from the 
rugged workmanship of the objects above described, but it 
is said to err in its excessive elaboration. 

" Yet there are good points," says Roth, " such as the blending 
of the two bell forms into the common handle, the happy tapering 
of the ornamentation into the Normian bird's beak; the increasing 
size of the side cups as they rise to correspond to the enlarged open- 
ing of the bell form ; the truthfulness to nature in an essential like 
the bust of the Negro, all of which betoken a fair amount of artistie 
feeling. The craftsman who probably designed execution of the 
smallest detail. ' '"" 

It is the opinion of collectors that there existed in Benin 
at one time a very large amount of carved objects in wood, 
but, unfortunately, most of these must have been destroyed 
when the British burned the city in 1897. Very little of 
such work, therefore, has survived. What it may have been 
like cannot be definitely said, yet some hint might be gained 
from a few specimens that escaped the fire, though these 
specimens are probably modern in their execution. 

One such object is a wooden casket in the form of a bul- 
lock's head, with two hands jutting out of the forehead and 
grasping the horns of the animal. The casket is supported 
by a pedestal of appropriate size and is decorated to repre- 
sent cowries. " The ears of the bullock's head are covered 
with embossed brass work, and there are strips of brass of 
scroll pattern running down the bullock's face and fastened 
on with small brass staples. "^^ 

In this connection it might be mentioned that there are 
some carved coconut shell in which the Negro carver often 
expressed his ingenuity. These represent in their carving 
a varied number of forms, including human beings, animals 
and plants. The interest in these carvings, as Both tells us, 
'' lies in their demonstration of the adaptability of the na- 
tive to perform creditably on a material very different from 

20 Ling Eoth, Great Benin, p. 206. 

21 Ibid., p. 209. 



276 JoTJRNAii OP Nbgbo Histoby 

ivory. Fair ingenuity is displayed in the manner in which 
the figures are grouped on a confined surface without over- 
crowding. In fact, the feature of the work is the careful 
distribution and general freedom of treatment. The de- 
tails of the carvings are throughout in low relief, remark- 
ably clean and neat and of a uniform depth. ' ' " 

So far no carved objects in stone, granite, marble, or the 
like, have come to view in the immediate Benin territory. 
This, of course, is natural enough when it is remembered, 
as has been pointed out, that there are no such materials to 
be found in the country. In 1911, however, Leo Frobenius 
discovered in his excavations of Ilife, a few hundred 
miles farther back in the interior, a number of carved stone 
objects which are interesting from several points of view. 
In the first place, might be considered the circumstance and 
position in which these objects were found. Many of these 
objects were dug up out of the earth at a depth of from 
eighteen to twenty feet, but several were found set up in 
tombs and isolated spots in the African forest. These for- 
ests are described by Frobenius as being sacred groves 
where the present-day natives worship their gods. Fro- 
benius testifies that there were an extraordinary number 
and variety of these stone figures, and that they represent 
very different periods. Some show a coarse type of work- 
manship, but others represent a very superior grade of 
work. The following is, in the main, Frobenius 's descrip- 
tion of these objects : 

' ' When, on leaving the main road, we arrived at the first small 
palm plantation, a group of quite coarse little stone pillars about 
waist high came into view. They are angular, roundish, and at all 
events roughly hewn or chipped off, absolutely bare of any detail. 
Going forward we came to another, rather more to the left. Here 
there is a wilderness of weeds, a mass of roof battens and the straw 
of a collapsed thatch, surmounted by a few stakes and climbers 
amidst which rises a stone image. This is about thirty-two inches 
high, roughly executed and defaced. It has one chain around its 
neck and another hangs over an apron skirt down to the hands 

88 Ling Both, Great Benin, p. 209. 



The Material Cultuee of Ancient Nigeria 277 

folded over the stomach. On its left side it has a peculiar hanger, 
something like the tassels of a Houssa sword. ' '^^ 

In another nearby spot he describes the find of a smaller 
statue : 

' ' When I first made its acquaintance, ' ' he writes, ' ' it was 
housed in a badly damaged little hut whose thatch almost hid it. 
It is a granite figure about thirty-six inches high above ground level. 
I could not find out whether its feet were covered by the earth. It 
is exactly like the other figure, with the hands over the belly, 
aproned and ornately tasseled on its left. It has armlets and a 
ruff-like ornament round its neck. The interesting part of the 
statuette is most decidedly its head, which had been knocked off 
and only insecurely replaced, when I first set eyes on it. The 
thick-lipped, broad-nosed face is negroid in type. . . . The treat- 
ment of the hair in this granite head is especially of the very great- 
est interest. The hair is represented by little iron pegs inserted in 
small holes ; here, for the first time, we come upon this singular use 
of iron, which metal, as we shall see, played a quite extraordinary 
part in the realm of Ilifian antiquities. ' '^* 

Under these same circumstances, he continues, 

' ' a group of all kinds of well-preserved relics is met with in a care- 
lessly constructed hut in the fourth and last enclosure. Symmetri- 
cally placed there is a stone crocodile to the right and left in front 
of a stone block artificially rounded and set on end. These vary 
but little in shape between a drop and an egg or onion, always in- 
clining toward the first, so that I would like to call them ' drop 
stones,' . . . before such of these drop stones, the more oval of 
which is twenty-four, and the more conical one nineteen and a 
quarter inches high, there is a crocodile. The larger and better 
finished of the two is twenty-four and three eighths and the other 
twenty-one and a quarter inches long."^' 

Frobenius further states that he had seen several other 
similar objects, made both of quartz granite and of other 
kinds of stone. In another sacred grove he reports finding 
several other very interesting stone objects: 

23 Frobenius, Voice of Africa, Vol. 1, p. 297. 

2< Ihid. 

2^ Ibid., p. 302. 



278 Journal of Negro History 

" Here within a small space surrounded by a low wall there is 
a ring of holy stones," he writes, " some of them very valuable. 
Firstly, there is a twenty-nine and a half inch long sandstone block 
of no very remarkable general aspect, weather-worn and abraded, 
but ending in a jagged crowned head of some such animal as a fish. 
The second is a block of quartz, like the drum of a column, dam- 
aged in places by exposure, but still recognizable as a fine piece of 
antique work." 

Finally, we come to what Frobenius calls the stone 
*' stools," of which " there are quite a number." Accord- 
ing to Frobenius, these stools very much resemble the stools 
made and used by the present-day Negroes and remind one 
of " negro stools with carriers." He says further: 

" These are stumpy columns from fourteen to twenty-four 
inches high. Sometimes the flat surfaces have a ring between them 
and sometimes not. Both quartz and granite examples are char- 
acterized by extraordinary uniformity of shape and surface polish. 
Their single handles at the side, mostly broken off, is the strangest 
part." 

Frobenius comments especially upon the tendency of 
these objects to " monumental form." In this connection 
he says : 

" Following the lines of everything taught us in the develop- 
ment of historical art, I can not well help drawing the inference 
that this idea of working in stone was introduced by a people who 
felt themselves impelled to monumental expression. ' '^* 

The origin and variety of these carved objects in stone 
offer us a very interesting point, yet one may reasonably 
infer from his other statements that here in the Ilife, as in 
the Benin region, granite, quartz and hard stone materials 
are in their natural state very, very limited, if not alto- 
gether absent. Like Benin, Ilife is in the Niger delta 
region, and, as Frobenius points, is of rather a swampy 
character. It is a geological fact that hard stone in any 
quantity is seldom to be found in such regions. In addition 
to this, Frobenius, as was pointed out above, states that the 
foundations of the ancient buildings are of burnt brick 

26 Frobenius, The Voice of Africa, Vol. 1, p. 305. 



The Mateeial Culture of Ancient Nigeeia 279 

rather than sun-dried brick or stone. It is very reasonable 
to suppose that hard stone, had it been in any way common 
to this area, would certainly have been used for building 
operations. One seems more or less justified in concluding, 
then, that the materials out of which the above-described 
objects were made were not of local origin. This circum- 
stance is very important, for it seems to indicate that either 
these materials were imported from a distance and fash- 
ioned on the spot or else they were imported already in their 
finished form. If the first view be accepted, it would seem 
in a measure to account, on the one hand, for the obvious 
lack of skill on the part of the African artist as expressed 
in the archaic human and animal forms ; but, on the other 
hand, it would, as is seen in the case of the ' ' stools ' ' men- 
tioned above, seem to indicate a rather remarkable liberty 
and grace on the part of the Negro artist, implying his 
ability to become a master even when working with a com- 
paratively unfamiliar material. For as Frobenius says, 
" the dexterity acquired in treating quartz and granite is 
very considerable. There is a quantity of eminently beauti- 
ful examples of such skill in this country. ' '" 

If we accept the latter view, namely, that the objects 
were imported ready made, it would seem to indicate that 
there must have been a rather extensive trade with some 
other Negro folk having a rather advanced form of culture, 
for it is obviously apparent from the distinctively Negro 
features of the statuettes and the undoubted Negro influ- 
ence as expressed in the style of the '^ stools " that these 
objects must have been the products of a Negro people. A 
slight hint for such an origin may be gleaned from the find- 
ing by Frobenius of the handle of an antique cup, of which 
he testifies that the carved figure thereon resembles very 
much the effigy of the Ethiopian or Nubian god Bes,^* and 
which, according to Budge,^" is held to have been of Su- 
danese origin. 

27 Frobenius, The Voice of Africa, p. 305. 

28 Ibid., p. 105. 

29 E. A. W. Budge, The Egyptian Sudan, Vol. 1, p. 526. 



280 Journal of Negeo Histoey 

Such, then, is an abbreviated account of the carved 
works which during the last generation have been discov- 
ered to have been produced by black folk on the West Coast 
of Africa in ancient and medieval times. 

"We shall next turn for a brief consideration to the glass 
and porcelain objects, including terra cottas. So far as can 
be determined, very little or no work of importance which 
can be classed under this head had come from the Benin 
country. By stretching the category, however, one might 
include under this head the finely polished marble-like walls 
which have been described in connection with the houses of 
the Benin territory. One might also include under this 
head the benches which were seen in the Benin houses in 
former times. The typical character of these benches may 
be noted from the brief description given by Captain Jas. 
Fawckner,'"' who visited the country in 1825. After de- 
scribing the houses, he says that " in the center is a bench 
formed of brown clay, which by frequent rubbing with a 
piece of coconut shell and wet cloths has received a polish, 
and, when dry, looks like marble." 

A few hundred miles to the West, in the Gold Coast 
region, is the home of the famous " aggry " beads. These 
beads, the manufacture of which is now a lost art, were 
found in the possession of natives by the earliest European 
explorers." The beads are of two kinds, a plain type and 
a variegated. " The plain aggry beads," say Bowdich, 
who made a careful study of them, ' ' are blue, yellow, green 
or a dull red; the variegated consist of many colors and 
shades ; the variegated strata of the aggry bead are so firmly 
united and so imperceptibly blended that the perfection 
seems superior to art. Some resemble mosaic work; the 
surface of others is covered with flowers and regular pat- 
terns so very minute and the shades so delicately softened 
one into the other and into the ground of the bead that 
nothing but the finest touch of the pen could equal them. 
The agate parts disclose flowers and patterns deep in the 

30 Fawckner, Travels on the Coast of Benin, London, 1837, p. 32. 

31 A. B. Ellis, A History of the Gold Coast, p. 9. 



The Mateeiaij Culture of Ancient Nigebia 281 

body of the bead and thin shafts of opaque colors running 
from the center to the surface. The coloring matter of the 
blue bead has been proved by experiment to be iron ; that of 
the yellow, without doubt, is lead and antimony, with a 
trifling quantity of copper, though this latter is not essen- 
tial to the production of the color. The generality of these 
beads appears to be produced from clays colored in thin 
layers, afterwards twisted together into a spiral form, and 
then cut across ; also from different colored clays raked to- 
gether without blending. How the flowers and delicate pat- 
terns on the body and on the surface of the rarer beads have 
been produced cannot be so well explained. "^^ 

In the earlier days, when much less was known of the 
technical and artistic ability of the African, the origin of 
these beads was quite a problem. The fact that similar 
beads were sometimes found in tombs in North Africa and 
in the graves and tombs of ancient Egypt and India led 
some to suppose them of probable Phoenician origin. Such 
a theory implies the existence of a rather extensive trade 
between the ancient Phoenicians and the ancient Africans 
of the West Coast. This may have been the case, for from 
Herodotus, and from the fragments of Hanno from the 
Temple of Milcarth in Carthage, we learn that frequent 
voyages were made beyond the Straits of Gibraltar and to 
the Gold Coast hundreds of years before Christ by Phoe- 
nicians as well as the Egyptians. This theory would, how- 
ever, imply an act of conservation and preservation of 
minute objects over a period of thousands of years on the 
part of African " savages," which, to say the least, would 
be very remarkable. It is likely, in the light of recent 
research upon the subject, that the Phoenician theory will 
have to be made with caution; for, as will be pointed out, 
there is now available much evidence which seems to indi- 
cate that these beads were of indigenous African origin. 

Further up in the interior of the Ilifian region a number 
of important glass objects have been found. Frobenius, 

32 Bowdich, Mission to Coomassee, p. 218. Quoted by Ellis. 



282 Journal of Negbo Histoey 

commenting on the find of this character made as a result 
of his excavation in the neighborhood of the ancient ' ' Holy 
City," testifies that " these furnish proof that at some re- 
mote era glass was made and moulded in this very land, 
and that the nation which here of old held rule was brilliant 
exponents of apt dexterity in the production of terra cotta 
images.'"^ The spot where the objects were excavated is 
" located about a mile or more to the north of Ilife and 
undoubtedly marks the impression of an ancient cemetery. ' ' 
It is located today in what is a vast forest, and " is about 
half a mile broad, did hide and still in fact hides quite 
unique treasure. ' ' Frobenius in describing the excavations 
here, planned by himself and executed under the direction 
of Martins, the engineer of the expedition, gives the follow- 
ing account : 

" We went down some eighteen feet or so, near the ground 
water, and can report as follows, viz., the top layer consisted of 
about two and a half feet of extraordinary hard and compacted 
soil. Even in this we turned up several glazed potsherds. . . . 
At about six and a half feet we found pottery. But the actual adit 
averaged about eighteen feet below the surface. For we came upon 
charcoal and ash heaps at this depth. This thoroughly verified the 
native statements as to the finding of either pearl jars or ashes so 
far down.^* The old excavations made by the inhabitants reached 
from twelve to twenty-four feet or thereabouts. ' ' 

Frobenius, in describing the objects discovered by this 
expedition, says : ' ' The substance of the pots is a sort of 
cement or stoneware. They are from fourteen to twenty 
four inches high and from three and three quarters to six- 
teen inches in diameter; they are generally uniform. The 
aperture is at the under and upper ends of the walls from 
about three quarters to one and a quarter inches thick. 
The upper of these portions is covered with an irregular 
glaze, varying from one thirty sixth to one eighteenth of an 

33 Frobenius, The Voice of Africa. 

31 It was such reports by the natives and the nature of the objects which 
they claimed to have found at this place that led Frobenius to excavate here. 
See pages 30&-307 of his Voice of Africa, Vol. 1. 



The Matebial Cultuee of Ancient Nigeeia 283 

inch thick inside. They were similarly glazed outside as 
the edges proved, but this has perished. A convexly carved 
plate or cupola in which there are three or four holes for 
finger holds seem to have been lids. Inside the pots are 
glass beads, rings, irregular bits of glass tubing, and always 
at the bottom a mass of fused bits of glass from one eighth 
to one quarter of an inch in depth. The colors of the beads 
and the glaze on the jars vary from light green, greenish 
white, dark red, brown and blue." Frobenius, commenting 
upon these finds, concludes that " the great mass of pots- 
herds, Itimps of glass, heaps of slag, etc., which we found 
proves at all events that the glass industry flourished in 
this locality in ages past. It is plain that the glass beads 
found to have been so common in Africa were not imported, 
but were actually manufactured in great quantities at 
home.'"' 

In addition to these objects of stoneware and glass, there 
were a large variety of terra cotta objects which range from 
the " simplest little pots and saucers to the most artistic 
shapes and portraits." To appreciate the real significance 
of these objects in view of the inability to see the originals 
themselves, one should make a special effort to see the draw- 
ings and photographs of these objects as contained in Fro- 
benius 's Der Afrika Sprach, or its English translation. The 
Voice of Africa. Accompanying these illustrations there 
are a few brief descriptions of the more important objects. 
There is, for instance, " a specimen which seems to be the 
mouth or collar of an urn. On its inner edge there is a 
mouth below, an ear on either side, and a pair of eyes. . . . 
It looks as if this might have been a portion of a tube which 
might have been put over a grave, through which offerings 
might have been made to the dead beneath."" This ex- 
planation for the original purpose of this object is very 
plausible, as a study of the burial customs of various parts 
of Africa will show. 

Frobenius is of the opinion that the dress of these an- 

3» Frobenius, The Voice of Africa, p. 309. 
»«I6«a., p. 313. 



284 JouKNAL OF Negbo Histoey 

cient peoples " must have been very rich and handsome." 
A terra cotta truss brought to light by these excavations is 
described as showing a ' ' noteworthy completeness. In the 
holes scattered on the breast plate and shoulder piece there 
were formerly inserted metal or iron pegs as ornaments. 
The end of the garment which is thrown over the shoulder 
is patterned like the old textures,"" which Frobenius be- 
lieved had reached a very high degree of development. 
" Among our terra cottas," continues Frobenius, " some 
may have served as pedestals for the heads or busts." He 
describes a peculiar " fragment belonging possibly to some 
sort of vessel; on one side is seen an owl, whose hooked 
beak is badly damaged ; on the other a complete figure hold- 
ing a weapon." Like the beautifully carved stone handle 
mentioned above, Frobenius testifies that this object also 
resembles the ancient Sudanese and Ethiopian god Bes,*^ 
and hints of an ancient connection between these two coun- 
tries. 

Another object, not dug up in the cemetery, but in the 
town of Ilif e proper, is a " fired, ' ' square thin plaque show- 
ing a crocodile in the shape of the letter S, so shaped that 
it seems to finish in a tightly bound head. The details are 
not easily seen, but the position of the legs seems to indicate 
that the beast is bound there with cords and is meant to 
seem fastened to the surface, with a sort of hood over the 
eyes ending in a string work and tassels as if in a cunningly 
made basket. Frobenius and his associates were of the 
opinion that this object is that of a tile which in ages past 
formed part of the decorative design of one of the ancient 
buildings.*^ 

Passing over a list of similar objects, we finally come to 
the world-famed terra cotta heads. Like the other terra 
cotta objects, these are fully illustrated in the above-named 
work. They are of " infinite variety " and " every ob- 
server may well see that they are patently portraits," 
They represent many varieties of Central Africans, from 

37 Frobenius, The Voice of Africa, p. 313. 
sslbid., p. 313. 



The Material CuLTtiRE of Ancient Nigeria 285 

the restricted minority group of prognathous flat-nosed, 
thick-lipped type of the coast to the more delicate and 
sharper featured types to which the majority of Africans 
belong. In other words, these terra cottas represent almost 
every African type suggesting, therefore, a civil life very 
cosmopolitan in character and the probable existence of a 
jus commercii as well as a jus connubii, which in turn argues 
well for the existence of a demogenic form of association 
of a very great age. Frobenius testifies that these heads 
are of " great beauty and amazing to those who inspect 
them." Commenting upon these terra cottas in general, 
he says : " I do not think that there can be the least doubt 
but that we are faced with a local form of art whose perfec- 
tion is absolutely astounding," and commenting upon one 
particular head which he calls mia after the native term 
for it, he concludes that it " must be regarded as the most 
important object hitherto found on African ground and as 
the finest work of art so far discovered outside the narrow 
Nile valley, on the further side of the old Roman juris- 
diction. "^^ 

We may now turn for a brief study of what is beyond 
all doubt the most important division of the whole group of 
African arts and crafts— the metal castings. As was men- 
tioned in the Introduction, the conquest of the city of Benin 
by the British in 1897 opened up to the knowledge of the 
white world a hitherto unknown field of Negro art, " the 
productions of which," according to Ling Roth, " will hold 
their own among some of the finest specimens of antiquity 
or modern times. ' '*" The excavations of Frobenius 's expe- 
dition discovered in the heart of this part of Negro-land, 
aside from the terra cottas already described, metal works 
which are characterized as being " indeed like the finest 
Roman examples. ' '^^ 

The amount and variety of these works are tremendous 
and they have been carefully studied and reported upon by 

sarrobenius, The Voice of Africa, p. 313. 

40 Ling Both, Great Benin, p. 217. 

41 Frobenius, Voice of Africa, p. 310. 



286 JouENAL OP Negro Histoey 

various writers. The following extracts, taken from the 
most noted among them, will give some idea of the nature 
and character of these objects. The chief feature of the 
personal ornaments, according to Ling Eoth, is their va- 
riety. Another feature is their play upon patterns. For 
example, the same pattern which is seen in one bracelet is 
so adapted and reduced in another as to produce a very 
different effect. Spirals as a basis of design are not un- 
common. " And they are often so twisted and interwoven 
that they produce quite a novel effect. " Some of the brace- 
lets are furnished with studs set with agate or coral. Some 
gold-plated ornaments have been found, among them a 
" bracelet formed by a double-headed snake grasping be- 
tween its jaws a decapitated human head and a snake about 
four inches long." Ling Roth, commenting upon the work- 
manship of these smaller objects, says that generally speak- 
ing it is good, but " it is not as a rule equal to that of the 
large Benin metal workings; this is no doubt due to the 
greater difficulty presented by the smaller surfaces on which 
the artisans have had to work.'"^ 

Speaking of what he calls a curious class of objects, 
namely, the long armlets and leglets " so fashionable in 
West Africa," Ling Roth declares them to be " elegantly 
finished productions and good examples of Benin art. . . . 
They are provided with loops for hawk bills, which turn up 
everywhere in unexpected places through Benin metal 
work." In describing one such bracelet, which, however, 
is of modem make, he says that it is " interesting as ex- 
hibiting a conventionalized leopard's face on the top, as 
well as a European's face on the bottom, likewise develop- 
ing into a form of ornament . . . the fertility in design is 
in all of these forms manifest indeed; it is a feature in the 
art of Benin natives which any of our jewelers might do 
well to copy."** 

Passing to a consideration of some of the larger forms 
of metal casting, we have the following description by Ling 

42 liing Both, Great Benin, p. 31. 
*3 Ibid., p. 33. 



The MATERiAii Cultube of Ancient Nigebia 287 

Eoth of a bronze vase " whose ornamentation consists of 
four mask-like faces in high relief, two plain and two ribbed, 
set alternately; above each of the ribbed masks there is a 
flat spiral on which rests an ornamental triangle on its apex. 
Between the heads are placed bands of very plain guilloche, 
each band consisting of alternate three or four rows each, 
above and below concentric circles of imitation (coral?) 
bead work, all in low relief, and helping to fill in the ground. 
The whole arrangement forms a combination of decidedly 
artistic effect. There is no enchasing or punching of any 
sort, nor is there much ornamentation, but what ornamen- 
tation there is, is designed in such a spirited manner as to 
produce a result which hardly can be surpassed by Euro- 
peans at the present day."" 

As another example of this same sort of thing, we may 
take the description of another object, a curious metal 
casket brought to Europe by a member of the Punitive Ex- 
pedition. In design, according to Ling Eoth, this casket 
" is bold and artistic; the high relief of the bizarre face and 
the zigzag conventionalized serpents and tadpoles being 
well thrown up by enchasing of the ground work. The pro- 
portions are all good, and this is especially the case with an 
enchasing of the enclosed lines. ' ' Ling Eoth says that the 
relief portions are somewhat roughly cast, and the enchas- 
ing sometimes irregular, but, " on the other hand," he con- 
tinues, " the great variety of objects exhibited without any 
over-crowding, the general grouping, the tones background, 
the real beauty " of the major portion of the design show 
that the artist was " a man of considerable taste, judged 
not only as a Negro, but as a man of culture. "*° 

Another object which Ling Eoth mentions as being espe- 
cially remarkable for its technique is that which he has 
ventured to call a sistrum. It consists of what appears to 
be two brass bell bodies, a larger and a smaller welded to- 
gether at the tapering ends. On the face of the larger bell 
is represented the now well-known group of a king or chief 

44 Ling Both, Great Benin, p. 225. 

45 Ibid., p. 223. 



288 Journal of Negbo Histoey 

with a sort of Persian head-dress, with a harpoon-like pro- 
jection at the top. He is supported on both sides by simi- 
larly dressed individuals; somewhat above the level of his 
head the chief is flanked by two tablets, each upheld by a 
hand emerging from the background. The background is 
enchased with an elegant foliated design somewhat Bornean 
in character. The back of the bell, with a few exceptions, 
has a similar relief. After describing the smaller bell, 
which is of a somewhat different character, Ling Roth con- 
cluded with these rather significant remarks : 

" Taken as a whole the Sistrum is an elegant piece of workman- 
ship. The thoroughness of the details of execution is worthy of the 
Japanese, even the inaccessible and almost hidden portion of the 
smaller bell being enchased with a pattern. ' '*^ 

As excellent as are these tj^pes of castings, the finest 
works of these Negro sculptors were achieved, not in works 
of this character, but, according to critics like Dalton, 
Eead, and Ling Eoth, rather in works that are done in the 
round.*' Dalton, speaking of a bronze head of a Negro 
girl now in the British Museum, declares it to be "the 
most artistic and perfect of all the castings in the round." 
Ling Roth, speaking of the same head, declares it to be the 
" finest piece of cast bronze art obtained from Benin." 

A find by Frobenius during his excavations at Ilife 
seems to support these conclusions. For of all the objects 
found by him at that site, his most important discovery he 
declares to be a bronze head, which he thinks is that of an 
ancient African god. The head wears a diadem with a 
staff. From the very tip of the diadem staff to the chin 
the object measures thirty-one and a quarter inches. " It 
is cast in what we call cere perdue, or hollow cast, and 
is indeed finely chased, suggesting the finest Roman ex- 
amples. The setting of the lips, the shape of the ears, the 
contour of the face, all prove, if separately examined, the 

<8 Ling Roth, Great Benin, p. 223. 

" See an article by Dalton and Bead in the Journal Anthrop. Inst., Feb- 
ruary, 1898, p. 372; also Ling Eoth, Great Benin, p. 216. 



The Mateeial, Cultube op Ancient Nigeria 289 

perfection of a work of true art, which the whole of it ob- 
viously is. ' ' " 

Some attention may now be given to the method by 
which these objects were made and to the question of their 
age and origin. In a report before the Anthropological 
Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in February, 1898,** 
Mr. C. H. Read and Mr. 0. M. Dalton described these ob- 
jects as having been east in moulds. They testified as to 
the difficulties attendant upon such methods in sculpture, 
announcing that they had " been overcome with the cer- 
tainty and skill which only long practice of a familiar art 
could produce. This alone goes to prove that at whatever 
period the objects were made they were produced by a 
people long acquainted with the art of casting metals. ' "^ 

Their report continues : ' ' The method by which the ob- 
jects were produced can only be that known as cere 
perdue process. By no other is it conceivable that so 
much extravagant relief and elaborately undercut detail 
could be represented with success. The process may be 
described in a very few words. The model is first made in 
wax, and every part of its surface is then covered with fine 
clay ; the whole work is then hidden in a mass of clay. An 
outlet is then made for the wax to escape, and the mass is 
then heated until the wax has melted out, leaving, of course, 
a mould of exactly the design of the wax in the original 
state. The metal is then poured in and fills every hollow 
space left by the wax." Read and Dalton, as well as Ling 
Roth, testify that when casting objects in the round, or any 
object for that matter, where there was considerable in- 
ternal bulk or projections, a core of sand was used as a base 
and the wax and clay respectively placed over this. This 
method, aside from insuring lightness, also saved consider- 
able metal. Ling Roth, in this connection, points out that 
" the ancient Etruscans and Greeks made their castings 
solid without any sand core, while the Beni were evidently 

*8 Frobenius, The Voice of Africa, Vol. 1, p. 310. 

49 "Works of art from Benin City," Jour. Anthrop. Inst., 1898, p. 321. 

so Ihid. 



290 JouENAL OF Negbo Hisxoey 

adept in the superior method practiced by the ancient 
Egyptians."" Eead and Dalton likewise conclude that 
" this cere perdue process is that by which many of the 
finest Italian bronzes of the best period were produced. "°^ 
Thus it is that we find the Negroes of West Africa, as Dal- 
ton concludes, " using with familiarity and success a com- 
plicated method which satisfied the fastidious eye of the 
best artists of the Italian Rennaissance.'"^ 

Such, then, is an abbreviated account of the arts and 
crafts which have been discovered in a restricted part of 
West Africa during the last generation. Whether the re- 
sults be considered large or small, it should be remembered 
that they represent the outcome of but a small amount of 
scientific investigation, only one expedition of scientific 
qualifications having so far operated in these parts. What 
the future holds or may bring forth yet remains to be seen. 

There has been, and still is, considerable difference of 
opinion regarding the origin and antiquity of the culture 
which these objects represent. Some hold it to be of great 
age and of a more or less indigenous origin, while others are 
of the opinion that it is comparatively modern and that it 
was introduced, some say, by the Arabs and Mohammedans, 
while others believe it was brought by the Portuguese, at 
varying dates down to and including the fourteenth and 
fifteenth centuries. 

Dealing with the latter view first, one hardly considers 
it unfair to say that there has never been any serious evi- 
dence for such opinion. The main reason for ascribing this 
culture to the Arab or Portuguese origin was due, on the 
one hand, to a failure to study seriously the culture itself, 
and, on the other hand, a kind of a priori conception of the 
very limited potentialities of Negro peoples. Basing their 
opinion upon the popular conception that the Negro 
represented the lowest form of human development, it was 
thought by early critics of the culture that the Negro could 

SI Ling Roth, Great Benin, p. SSe. 
s2jour. Anthrop. Inst., 1898, p. 372. 
islbid., p. 272. 



The Material Culttjeb op Ancient Nigebia 291 

not have produced objects of art capable of holding their 
own among the highest forms of human creations ; and so 
in the exigencies of the situation the theories of Arab or 
Portuguese origin were brought to the fore. The advance 
of ethnological science during the last generation, the seri- 
ous study of the Benin objects in an objective sense, and 
finally the results of Frobenius's Expedition, all combined, 
have not only weakened the theories of a modem Arab and 
Portuguese origin, but have practically destroyed them al- 
together. 

Let us take a summary view of some of this evidence 
against these theories. In the first place, there might be 
mentioned the changing opinion regarding the supposed 
mental difference between so-called cultured and primitive 
peoples. As a result of many scientific studies, and some 
scientific expeditions both in Africa and Oceania, it is now 
practically the belief in scientific circles that there is no 
potential difference in quality of mind of the various races 
or of widely differentiated cultural groups. This removes 
at the outset the belief heretofore held as to the inherent 
limited capacity of the Negro peoples. According to this 
modem point of view, then, the objects above described 
could have been created by native blacks of Central Africa. 

As a next step, Ling Eoth has pointed out that as there 
is hardly a traveler from Africa who has not recorded the 
art of iron smelting among the Negro or Bantu tribes, '' we 
may accept as a fact that the art of smelting iron is a very 
old one in Africa." Not only does the recent evidence 
point out that iron smelting per se was an old and wide- 
spread practice in Africa, but, in addition, reports a similar 
method of metal working as discovered in the Benin country 
to have been in vogue in other and widely separated parts 
of Africa. For example, Bowditch" describes a method of 
casting on the Volta Eiver, where a wood core was used in- 
stead of sand, while Eobinson^" states that at Kano ' ' there 

B4 Mission to Ashanti, pp. 311-312, 
SB Haussaland, p. 118. 



292 JouENAL OF Negeo Histoby 

are on sale swords, spears and many other objects made of 
native wrought iron. The article desired is first formed in 
wax and from this clay model is made into which the molten 
iron can be poured. "®® 

This, it would seem, reduces considerably the need for 
postulating modem influence so far as the method is con- 
cerned. And even if modern influence were responsible, it 
could hardly have been Arab or Portuguese, for up to date 
no such objects as above described have been found among 
the ruins of the Islamic civilization. And on the other 
hand, as Ling Roth has said, ' ' we are still quite in the dark 
as to the existence of any such high-class art in the Iberian 
peninsula at the end of the fifteenth century; and we know 
that there was not much of this art in the rest of Europe."" 
The only serious evidence, if even it might be so called, 
which was ever advanced as indicating Portuguese origin 
for this art was the fact that on some of the plaques from 
Benin there were found Portuguese heads or figures. But 
this, instead of indicating a Portuguese origin, gives, when 
carefully studied, reasonable evidence to the contrary. 

Let us make a brief study of one of these objects. An 
object described by Ling Eoth°* as the " head of the staff 
or wand of offices " may be used as an illustration. The 
design is " that of a leopard supporting a column on its 
back. The uppermost portion of this staff head consists of 
a band of engraved basket work patterns with grained open 
ground. This is followed by a band of fish-scale patterns 
ornamented at the lower comers of contact pinched indents. 
On this band there is an upper series of ornaments in relief. 
The upper series consists of four faces; that on the front 
being probably that of a Negro and that on the back that 
of a European. Both faces are boldly and clearly executed, 
while the two faces on either side are of Europeans, both 
of them flat and poorly executed, and in profile with the 
mouth curiously twisted into the full face. The European 

6« Quoted by Ling Both, in Great Benin, p. 232. 
ST Ibid., p. 232. 
iilbid., p. 219. 



The Matebial Ctjltube of Ancient Nigeeia 293 

figures on either side of the leopard in their flatness and 
general crudeness are quite out of keeping with the rest of 
the work. " Yet," he says, " one cannot help admiring the 
boldness with which the leopard has been modelled, or the 
firmness with which its claws grasp the ground ; while the 
vigorous way in which the tail is made to support the back 
of the column should be remarked. Equally admirable are 
the suitable proportions of the bands of ornament. The 
upper band is thoroughly subdued so that the faces next to 
it are brought more prominently into relief." 

It is evident that in every feature, excepting the Euro- 
pean faces, this object is obviously the product of a master. 
How, then, are we to account for the crude and archaic 
appearance of the European figures ? It would seem either 
that it was done purposely out of disrespect for the Euro- 
pean or else it was the result of an unfamiliarity with the 
subject on the part of the artist. If the African artist had 
been indebted to the European for his apprenticeship, it is 
highly improbable that either of the conditions present here 
would have been likely to occur. 

In this same connection a statement by Ling Both testi- 
fies that " the Beni almost invariably give their fellow Afri- 
cans sturdy lower limbs while they do not do so invariably 
to Europeans. The latter of a certain type are made to 
stand on well planted feet, while such Europeans as are in 
any way about to use their guns have their legs bent and 
puny." 

That the work of the African artist, when dealing with 
Europeans, was necessarily of an inferior grade must not 
be assumed to be the rule, however, though it does seem 
from the evidence that there is more unaccountable archaic- 
ness in objects of this character than in any others. Ling 
Both, speaking in this same connection, calls attention to 
the fact that Benin was not discovered by the Portuguese 
until about 1472, and that by the middle of the sixteenth 
century {e.g., 1550) we have an almost perfect figure of a 
European, presumably made by a native. "It is incon- 



294 JouKNAL OF Negbo Histoby 

ceivable," he concludes, " that an introduced art could have 
developed at so rapid a rate that in seventy years, probably 
less, for this art would hardly have been introduced the first 
day, such a high pitch of excellence could have been attained 
by the natives." 

If the Portuguese theory is untenable, the Arabic or 
Islamic theory is equally, if not more, unacceptable. In 
the first place, as has already been pointed out, Arabic or 
Islamic art shows absolutely nothing in art approaching 
objects of the Benin type. Furthermore, Islam itself did 
not appear in Central Africa until the eleventh century, and 
then only in the northern and western parts of the Sudan. 
And it was, moreover, not until the fourteenth century that 
it made itself a real part of the life of the northern country, 
and not until the eighteenth that its influence spread into 
Yorubaland. And then its influence was only felt in the 
back country."' 

Furthermore, according to Frobenius and Ling Both, 
respectively, both the Ilifian region and the Benin territory 
remain until the present-day non-Mohammedan in char- 
acter. This would seem to indicate Islamic iafluence in 
those countries where most of these objects above described 
were found has been necessarily very slight; yet such a 
culture as the above objects represent was unquestionably 
a very integral part of the life of the country and could not 
possibly have been due to such an influence. Furthermore, 
if additional evidence were needed to disprove the theory, 
it might be cited that it is a well-known fact that one of the 
fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith is the proscription 
of the representation of the human form in its art in any 
whatsoever. And since the height of the material side of 
this culture was reached in this kind of art, it appears 
doubtful that this culture could have arisen from such a 
source. 

It would seem, therefore, that this culture at least ante- 
dates the coming of the Portuguese and the Arab influence 

6»iiugard, A Tropical Dependency, 



The Material Cultube op Ancient Nigebia 295 

in this part of "West Africa. To state definitely its place 
of origin, or the exact date of its origin, is at present, how- 
ever, impossible, because of the relatively small amount of 
scientific work and study carried out in this part of the 
Continent. But in spite of this sufficient evidence is al- 
ready available to warrant the opinion on the part of all 
the critics previously referred to that this culture is essen- 
tially African in origin and very, very old. Frobenius is 
convinced that it is at least pre-classical and pre-Christian 
in its beginning. 

Such, then, and until now, is the character of the mate- 
rial culture of this restricted spot of Black Africa. What 
the future will bring let the future tell, but of this let the 
present be conviaced : that at least this part of Black Africa 
is not " beyond the reach of interest in the history of the 
world; always in a state of apathy asleep to progress and 
dreaming its day away." And of this may the present be 
ever sure that Black Africa is not " a continent which has 
no mystery, nor history I " 

William Leo Hansbeeey.